Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Hockey Summit

There are no games being played but hockey now operates 12 months solid. The time between the Amateur Draft and the start of training camps is a busy time. This year had the drama of the Kovalchuk signing (and non-signing) and the Kaberle non-trade. But the most significant event was the Hockey Summit this past week in Toronto.

Much what we heard isn't new but it did underscore that hockey has some big issues to deal with. The fact that the NHL is opening to tweaking the game is probably a good thing despite the noise coming from the "purists". There was a time when there were 7 players on the ice and the players used stick made from wood. Sports all evolve.

Here are what I believe are the most significant things coming out of the Summit:

1. Status of the game in North America and Europe

Hockey is in great shape in Canada and probably never been better in the U.S. Though in Canada the number of kids playing the game is flat and no longer growing. This partly reflects birth rates but also that even Canada kids are picking up other sports. However in Europe hockey is in trouble outside of Sweden and Finland. The number of elite players coming out of Russia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic has fallen considerably. This is going to have an impact on the NHL and future Olympics. A big barrier are rinks. Growth requires more rinks which are more expensive to build than soccer fields or basketball courts. But also their development programs are in shambles as junior players in Europe opt for the Canadian Junior Leagues because they are viewed as better programs.

2. Women's game continues to be in trouble

Women's hockey continues to be a two-country sport. Supposedly Russia only has about 300 women playing the game. The sport in the Olympics is definitely in jeopardy if there isn't more growth in Europe. I think the clock is ticking. There was also talk of starting a professional women's league in North America.

3. NHL players will likely playing at the Sochi Olympics

Gary Bettman has clearly articulated what he is looking for out of the Olympic organizers - games played as close to primetime TV viewing hours as possible on the East Coast. There will be some negotiations supported by North American TV networks but I think it will happen.

4. NHL expansion to Europe

The Europeans made it very clear that they do not want the NHL in Europe. The IIHF sees Europe as it's territory. This is not really an issue at the moment with so many North American franchises struggliing. But the strong stand by the IIHF caught Bettman by surprise.

5. World Cup of Hockey

The World Cup is back on the table as a tournament between Olympic years. The nest one should be in 2012 but there is little time left to organize it. Also it has not been included in the current CBA so a deal will have to be worked out with the players' association.

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